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‘The Big Sick’ (review)

Produced by Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
Written by Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon
Directed by Michael Showalter
Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan,
Holly Hunter,Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar,
Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant

 

What’s left to explore in the romantic comedy?

If there was ever a more formulaic and generally disappointing genre, I have not seen it. One of the more tired trends that has seen increasing popularity lately is using diversity as an easy device to move the plot forward without unpacking almost any of it.

Since there have been many half-hearted iterations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?-style comedy (including the unbearable update, Guess Who?) it was a pleasant surprise to see such a fresh take in Kumail Nanjiani’s first feature.

Based off of the true life story of how he and his wife met (she is a co-writer), it brings a cultural lens to the genre that moves diversity from mere trope to thoughtful aspect.

The Big Sick is a heartwarming and quirky boy-meets-girl-who-suddenly-goes-through-a-medical emergency story. Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) have a blossoming relationship that he is quietly hiding from his devout Muslim parents, who are actively searching for a good prospect in order to set up a traditional [arranged] marriage.

As he and Emily fall into dischord after a difficult conversation about the future, she falls incredibly ill and has to rely on the decision-making of Kumail and her distraught parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter). Navigating the situation together, the unlikely trio bonds in strange and wonderful ways.

Watching Kumail, Terry, and Beth handle the grief in their own ways is rich and intimate. The emotional anxiety of waiting for news from the hospital is compounded by meeting for the first time without Emily to manage expectations and interactions. Social graces are strained and snapped to great reward due to the great chemistry between Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano. While early scenes lean on shallow racially tinged moments (Terry mentions that he always wanted to speak to a Muslim about 9/11, a heckler goes for anti-Muslim taunts, etc.) later in the movie we get a better look at how love plays the largest factor in bridging the gap.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t without flaws. It is too long at the end and there are several places to tighten up the movie without losing any of the heart. Some of the speeches seem a bit clumsy and straightforward, like when Kumail questions his parents’ traditionalist view in the face of the options he feels that America offers. It is refreshingly earnest and personal, but there is a clunkiness that I wish had been ironed out in a thoughtful rewrite.

Performances across the board, however, combined that pure honesty with deft restraint and skill. Holly Hunter is dynamic as Beth, the family backbone. You can feel the electric charge from her body through the screen as she goes toe-to-toe with Kumail and questions why he is still around, as his view of his relationship to Emily clashes with hers. Ray Romano pulls out the bumbling awkward dad routine that made Everybody Loves Raymond such a success. But this one has a bit more of a wearied edge, with stress showing at the seams that he seems barely able to stay on top of. His desire to be friends with this unfamiliar man who keeps demonstrating how much his daughter means to him is clumsy in the most charming way.

Nanjiani does not always look comfortable with so much screentime, but he has an ease with the material that shows from both his comedy background and his personal experience. This movie should do much for his standing as an actor that deserves more substantial roles going forward.

Though we do not spend a great deal of time with his family, the comedic relief from his brother as straight man (Adeel Akhtar) and the stern but caring attitude from Bollywood legend Anupam Kher as his father create a brief but noticeable portrait of what Kumail could lose if he turns from his culture to follow his heart.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this movie, and the best reason to recommend it as relief from the traditional rom-com, is where the relationship building lies. Though her presence is always felt, the majority of this sweet film does not center on Emily and Kumail. Rather, it is on the idea that strong mutual love for a third party can unite complete strangers as it gives them something deeply familiar to relate with and relate to.

 

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